Double-Edged Swords: Emotions at Work

By Cheuk Yue Wan, Georgiana Darau |

Organizations attract and retain high-performers by executing a variety of competition-oriented policies and practices (reward system) and offering a variety of resources (pay rise). But those organizational policies, practices and resources make the employees compete with each other to strive for those benefits and these are likely to lead to often undesirable consequences, like social comparisons in the workplace. The scientific literature shows that discrete emotions such as envy, guilt and shame can affect behavior at work.

Social comparison is a process of self-evaluation. Scholars have distinguished between two types of social comparisons : (1) upward social comparison (with someone superior) and (2) downward social comparison (with someone inferior). These types of social comparison generate both constrastive and assimilative processes. Contrastive process occurs when the social comparison processes highlight what one lacks, while assimilative processes highlight what one has or can easily have. Upward constrastive processes tend to generate discrete toxic emotions. These emotions (envy, guilt and shame) are viewed as complex interpersonal emotions.

Social comparison processes make people ask themselves : ‘what might have been if I had similar characteristics (or did similar things)’ and they are likely to elicit a variety of discrete toxic emotions which can affect interpersonal relationships and behaviors at work. Organizations and managers have to be aware of both negative and positive outcome of discrete emotions and their implications because helping employees manage their emotions contributes to the organizational effectiveness. In the following section we will summarize the toxic emotions which are currently discussed in the scientific literature.


Envy is widespread in today’s competitive organizations. It is defined as ‘an unpleasant and painful blend of feelings characterized by inferiority, hostility, and resentment caused by a comparison with a person or group of persons who possess something we desire’. Envy is an unpleasant emotion, frequently associated with negative individual, interpersonal, and organization consequence. For example, envy is related to lower levels of individual self-esteem and decreased group performance, reluctance for openness to sharing information with the envied person, abusive supervision, and occurrence of unethical behaviors. A research demonstrated that a supervisor’s envy toward a specific subordinate is more likely to lead to abusive supervision because of the supervisor’s perceived self-esteem threat.

However, recent studies have suggested that envy can motivate people to put more effort on self-improvement, increase job performance and activate systematic learning process. That is to say, people can reduce and even close the gap between them and targets of envy, not only by bringing others down, but also by enhancing themselves. Co-worker’s envy can lead to increased impression management (exemplification) through a desire to rebuild diminished self-esteem. Moreover, envy may lead to a higher level of task performance through active learning processes.

On the other hand, people who are envied may have a feeling of pleasure and are thus likely to provide assistance, but for others, being the target of envy can be a source of interpersonal strain and making people feel unpleasant and stressed. This depends on whether the envied target is higher in independent (personal) or interdependent (social) self-concept.


Guilt is defined as ‘an emotional state with possible objections to one’s own actions, inactions, circumstances, or intentions’. Guilt is often a less painful emotional experience because the object of guilt is a specific behavior, not the entire self. Guilt is viewed as an adaptive emotion that produces beneficial consequences at the workplace. Research shows that people who experience guilt have a sense of empathy which motivates them to find reparative actions such as confessing, apologizing, non-hostile discussion and repairing the damage done. In other words, guilt motivates prosocial behaviors aimed at rebuilding that hurt interpersonal relationship. It has been also found that experience of guilt is likely to increase a sense of personal responsibility, compliance, and forgiving, and therefore less likely to generate harming behaviors.

However, while a variety of prosocial behaviors aim at repairing damaged relationships, it is possible that those benefits which are achieved are at the cost of others ( less resources to others or even doing harm toward others).


Shame is defined as ‘a person’s experience of negative self-evaluations based on anticipated or actual depreciation by others due to a failure to meet standards of behavior’. Shame is a painful emotion because it focuses on the disappointment of the entire self and it might lead to problematic responses. A study shows that when receiving mistreatment in the workplace, nurses are likely to perceive a negative evaluation from the instigator and blame themselves, therefore experiencing shame. When people feel shame about self, they might feel a sense of worthlessness which in turn leads to defensive responses, including submission, social avoidance, withdrawal and rejection from others. Besides the defensive responses, the experience of shame is also likely to make people blame others for their own failure which is directly linked to interpersonal aggression.

Specifically, when the group norms include competition, outperforming others and reaching a senior position, shame often motivates unethical or antisocial behaviors such as bullying, discrimination and abuse against others and out-group members.However, shame might stimulate positive interpersonal interactions when the group norms highlight cooperation, group unit and group benefit.

Organizations have to be aware of the cross-cultural differences as well because individuals from different cultures differ in their understanding of and response to emotions. For example, research found that while shame leads to enhanced customer relationship building, civic virtue and helping among Filipino employees, shame leads to diminished sales volume, communication effectiveness, and relationship building among Dutch employees.




Duffy, M. K. and Yu, L. (2018). Toxic Emotions at work. In Ones, D. S., Anderson, N., Viswesvaran, C., & Sinangil, H. K. (Eds.). The SAGE Handbook of Industrial, Work & Organizational Psychology, 2v: Personnel Psychology and Employee Performance; Organizational Psychology; Managerial Psychology and Organizational Approaches. (pp. 122-144). SAGE Publications.

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